Kage rolled onto his back, giving a soft sigh as he stared up at the stars. It expressed the anxiousness all the students shared.
The next day was to be the day that they materialized their zanpakuto. There was a special cave in soul society, far from sereiti and rukongai, that was made up of unstable spirit particles, and exposure to them would cause the spirit particles of their bodies to fluctuate similarly. For those strong enough, and all were presumed to be so by now, this would lead their spirits to start to break down into two entities. One, themselves, would remain and the second, smaller, would be their zanpakuto. They'd never been told why exactly when zanpakutos had spirit bodies of sorts or why they materialised as swords, but it wasn't like they hadn't tried for answers. By this point it had just been accepted as an unexplainable fact. Tomoko in her eccentric ways compared it to the universe – we know all about what happened during the big bang and after but not why it happened, before Kage would remind her with a laugh that are zanpakutos were hardly on the same scale of importance as all things currently known to mankind, dead or alive.
Karin looked over at her friends, all for once subdued. Not a smile visible, not even that happy aura they carried could be felt. As the youngest physically of their class they clearly enjoyed playing the immature role and not acting like they bore responsibility. Not Kage so much, but Tomoko and Maseru. It wasn't childishness, it's was just that they didn't quite trust themselves enough to let others give them that responsibility. Karin knew that they would be able to step up to it when the time came, and tonight was the night they needed to realise it themselves. When students got their zanpakutos they would start being integrated into everyday shinigami life, and that meant duties and responsibilities. They wouldn't have teachers and class mates to rely on for help. They might not even see them for weeks at a time.
"We'll be okay," whispered Maseru, reassuring himself as much as anyone, because they know that even friends might not be there for them.
"'Course we will. It's gonna take more than a few duties for you guys to get rid of me," mumbled Tomoko, the lack luster in her voice meaning her usual banterous humour sounded forced, though it lightened their frowns a little.
"For the next year at least we'll still be spending at least one day a week on class. Some of us may remain there full time at first until there's space in squads for us, or missions suitable for use to take. After all, we have another two years after this one until we graduate so they aren't going to dispatch us for months away in somewhere like Karakura, even seated offices aren't allowed to be the official shinigami posted there."
Karin nodded, remembering how frequent hollow attacks were in her home town, as Kage apologised for his speech upsetting Tomoko even more. She'd never told Karin about her past, nor the others, but the Kurosaki girls couldn't help but think it had been a troubled one. The two girls relied on this group of friends like family. These were the first of her peers to not only accept her, but really get to know, understand and like her. They'd been there through all the struggles and trials of her last year and they'd never left her side during the summer vacation, even when they'd found themselves star struck at the company they were in during their time in gigais at the Kurosaki household.
"So!" Karin said with enough fake enthusiasm to draw some genuine interest from the others, surprising herself in the process, "What do you think our zanpakutos will be like?"
"Mine better not be a bloody katana," was Tomoko's grumbled reply. Maseru proceeded to tease her about her lack of sword skills, and her predictable violent reaction was entertaining enough to lift to mood a little and lips started to relax out of the firm lines of worry they had become so set in the last few days. Without warning, Kage jumped in on the action, launching himself at Tomoko's ribs and tickling her. She held her breath while Maseru, who had been pinned down on his front with his arms behind his back, being held in place by a certain someone sitting on him, started to struggle harder, knowing that once she gave into Kage's torture she'd forget not to squirm and probably end up jumping and landing painfully on him. Surprised by how long the other girl had held out for, Karin shuffled over, casual, as if to break up the whole situation, before attacking Tomoko's neck. With a squeal the other girl's defences crumpled and tucking up in a ball to try and defend herself she fell back, the lucky Maseru not getting to his feet fast enough before getting his revenge, taking her shoes of at lighting speed and wreaking tickle havoc on her feet. From the massive mood lift, this became even funnier than usual, their eyes starting to run from the sheer amusement. Maseru though the last to join, was the first to abandon the cause, mimicking Tomoko's fetal position, though he was doubled over with laughter, the odd loud breath and cry of "Stomach cramp," punctuating his hysteria.
Eventually Karin and Kage gave into the pleas for mercy, and because they were mildly concerned about the colour of Tomoko's face. It wasn't uncommon for these sessions to end up with her completely red and breathless from shouting and laughing. After all had recovered enough to be at the very least sitting upright the smiles that had been their trademark accessory for the past year had returned, and though not completely cured of their worries, it was enough so that they could be pushed to the back of the mind and they could reattempt the speculation of what their zanpakutos might be like,
"So my humiliation aside, I reckon," Tomoko took a dramatic pause to look at each of them individually, "Karin, yours is obviously going to be a beast with your spiritual power, Maseru's will be all strength and power, your standard eleventh squad cleaver-"
"Say eleventh squad again and I'll-"
"Lose to me in hand to hand combat again?" Tomoko stuck her tongue out and Maseru threatened her by rigging the partner system to spar with her next kendo lesson. She quickly turned to Kage, the only member of the group at that point to have a now straight face, "And I reckon yours will either be one of two extremes, like either a daito or a wakizashi."
"Your reasoning being?"
"Gut feeling," another titter of laughs came from the circle before the conversation turned to what their shikais might be like in the future, Karin volunteering her opinions this time. After a few more rounds of speculation and laughter, they decided it was time to get the rest that would be much needed tomorrow.
Not being able to share dorms, they'd decided to camp out in a tent they may just have acquired from the thirteenth squad's lieutenant. Karin was strongly opposed to using her brother and his friends to her advantage, but the others had befriended the Kurosaki-taicho and his fiancée over the break and Maseru had no such qualms, and nor did Rukia in obliging to them. In a sleeping bag between Tomoko and Maseru, both of whom had crashed out the second they closed their eyes, Karin felt hope for the next day and that even if it were to be their last day together they would always find a way to be there for her when she needed them.
Dawn the next morning brought a frenzied rush back to the halls to avoid being caught out, the tent and accompanying objects left behind as suggested by Rukia. After seeing Karin suffer through her teens, Rukia and even more so Ichigo, were not just relieved but happy she had finally found friendship and both wanted to help make it as good as possible for her to make up on the years lacking in affection, hence why they had agreed to go clean up after them, allowing the camp out to happen with minimal risks of getting found out and punished.
After a successful break in back to their rooms, it was a rush for the students to wash away any evidence of their night, Maseru mildly disturbed at the amount of mud stains he'd acquired from his skirmish with Tomoko, before making themselves presentable, donning uniform and meeting in the outer quad as ordered. Some of the last to arrive, they couldn't see over the small crowd that had gathered, all whispering with an electric buzz. Immediately they noticed it was not just their class and the regular class of the year above there, as had been planned, but a whole host of lower students too. As the tallest and most likely to be able to work his way through the crowd Kage set off in order to see what had drawn so much attention, and the others saw him stop abruptly. Anything shocking enough to make Kage halt was worth a see. Tomoko was the first to follow after, grabbing onto Karin's hand who in turn took Maseru's, making a chain. Though she didn't have Kage's grace in negotiating spaces, she had enough strength to make her own and being below average eyelevel, people didn't realise that the nudge they just felt was a person pushing past, not just a bump from a neighbour. Getting back to Kage's side, the two girls still struggled to see over heads, and the boys seemed too distracted to notice their distress.
"There are captains here." Whispered Kage. "Kyoraku-taicho, Ukitake-taicho, Soi Fon-taicho, Kuchiki-taicho, Kurosaki-taicho and Hitsugaya-taicho. They're all just… here."
The captains never came to the academy. Ever.
"Ichigo's here?" Asked Karin, disbelieving of the situation. The siblings did as much as was possible to avoid each other in Soul Society, not because it was awkward or they Ichigo felt he's was too far superior to her but because they knew there'd be accusations of favouritism and of Karin getting extra help. People would love to tarnish her natural talent. There had to be something more than they knew about going on if any captain, let alone six of them and one of them being Ichigo, were there. Maseru turned so his back was bared to Karin, crouching slightly and allowing her to jump on and see the occasion for herself. When she cast her shocked gaze over the powerful group she couldn't help but let a name slip from her mouth in sheer shock.
He'd grown. Hugely. From looking like a primary school kid he was now only half and inch or so shorter than Ichigo, his round childish face had hollowed out to show a strong but tapered jaw and cutting cheek bones. His eyes were still wide and bright, the same piercing blue as she remembered from her childhood. The thick spikey hair which had previously stuck up and out in every direction physically possible and more was now longer and tamed, lying flatter and reaching his shoulders at points. At that moment Karin saw that his cheeks were coloured with anger, no doubt related to whatever it was making her brother double over with laughter. Unnoticed to herself, a light smile graced her face as she remembered the two times she'd met him. He'd been her hero the first time, first saving her pride in the football match and then protecting her and her friends from a hollow too powerful for her to take out with a reitsu saturated football. Not that she wouldn't have tried if he hadn't been there.
Her reverie was snapped when she noticed Tomoko staring down at her, obviously having either launched herself onto Kage's back or bugged him until he picked up her. A moment of panic rampaged through Karin – what look had she had on her face? What did it give away? With the childish way Tomoko acted she half expected her to tease her like a school girl then she remembered that this was one of the dearest friends she'd ever had. And that the second she needed to be Tomoko was one of the most mature and caring people. The two girls just smiled at each other, knowing that nothing needed to be said. Whatever Karin was seeing, or rather whoever, left her with one of the most genuine smiles Tomoko had ever seen on the other girl's face and she wasn't about to interrupt and risk soiling or destroying something so apparently raw and innocent.
They continued to watch the events of the morning unfold from their relative perches. After much hassling and yelling, the lower student filtered out of the court yard, just leaving the forty or so that were meant to be there. Eventually Ukitake-taicho stepped forward, clapping his hands in askance of the students' attention.
"Greetings," he started, his voice cheerful and optimistic, "By the end of today, the majority of you will have materialized and mastered your zanpakuto and your positions for the foreseeable future will have started to be decided.
"You may be wondering why you have so many captains here today. As many of you know, it is normally customary for myself and or Kyoraku-taicho to accompany a group of students of today however," his voice became serious and his face grave, "There have been a disturbing number of powerful hollow attacks around rukongai and we did not feel it safe to leave a large number of zanpakuto–less souls with phenomenally high reitsus to wonder to our location. Our job today is to both transport you safely using powerful kido and to join you and defend you should it be necessary. I understand many of you will be thinking you could defend yourselves, but you need to accept our judgement on this issue. These hollows are powerful and you will be in a weakened state.
"And now to begin, if you could form an orderly queue we will begin transporting you in groups of, at most, five."
After some jostling the group found themselves near the back of the line, only now they could look down the sides of it to see what was happening. There would four narrow poles, only about five foot in height, that formed a square. At first Kyoraku-taicho and Ukitake-taicho stepped into the square and vanished after a short incantation was muttered Kuchiki-taicho. They recognised it as a similar type of kido that transported Karakura town during the Winter War. Soon students started passing through the set up, until about half of them were gone and Ichigo and Hitsugaya-taicho went too. Ichigo spotted Karin and her friends at the last moment and gave a subtle nod or reassurance. Soon it was their turn, stepping into the square as a four they surprisingly received a small "Good Luck," from Kuchiki-taicho, before the world before them changed in a split second and they found themselves standing on a rocky platform in the cavern riddled mountains far from all inhabitants of Soul Society.
"For many of you," began Kyoraku-taicho after the final two captains had arrived, "This will be the first time you meet your zanpakuto spirit. On entering the cave you will take up the deep meditation you have been taught in class and for the first time, you will find yourselves solidly in your inner world. There you will find you zanpakuto spirit, depending on what happens during that will affect the process after. If you anger or displease your zanpakuto, they can refuse to lend you their power. Prove to them you're worthy of them, that they will want to be by your side. How you zanpakuto materializes, it'll vary for each of you. Good luck, we go no further than this."
There was a moment of still, when no one dared move or be the first to enter the gaping cave mouth open before them. The second after Kage, Maseru, Tomoko, Karin and two other shinigamis started to weave their way to their goal, the others watching in a mixture of awe, respect, fear and curiosity. Inside, the air was cold and the room dark. Karin felt the others around her and couldn't help but fail to suppress shivers dancing all over her skin at the strange feeling in her chest. The air seemed charged with something, and she could see from her company they all bore excited grins, their worries from last night gone.
Power, that's what she could feel in the air.
After having ventured out of view from the outside world, the four sat down, each of them forming the corner of a large square. Karin closed her eyes as she had been taught to do, breathing and letting herself go as she'd been taught to do. From the dark she could begin to smell something. Salty, but fresh. She noticed the air she was breathing was clean and pure. There was a gentle, rhythmic noise she couldn't quite place. She opened her eyes.
The sun glittering off the sea was the first thing to catch her eye. The second was the beautiful woman, sitting next to her on the cliff edge, facing out to the horizon.